Lily Paxton is a child of the 1880s Oklahoma territories, born to a poor gypsy mother and a wealthy mine-owning father. She rides the prairies and the grasslands making friends with the foreman's son at her father's mine and a Native American boy she meets in the ancient Cross Timbers forest. But, when she reaches sixteen she is sent east to her father's wealthy family and a finishing school where she will prepare for courtship with wealthy young men or perhaps even a European noble. But, when a chance happening calls her back to Oklahoma she finds she must choose between a return to the east and a life of wealth and privilege or the hard life in a territory not yet a state that she has always loved. The choice she makes will not only determine her own future but will help to determine the fate of a very young nation.
...an immersive, character-driven narrative set in a world built with stunning authenticity, and intriguing characterizations which draw you in immediately...
....an unforgettable story of life at the rise of the Gilded Age...simple and sure...vast descriptions aptly depicting the lush sights, sounds and smells of the era...as well as the beauty that accompanies the modest lifestyle of native Americans.
Her name was Lily. She was named that because as a child her mother had often sought comfort in the woodlands near her home among the beautiful, wild lilies-of-the-valley, a flower that blooms only in May and gives off a most delicious scent.
For her mother, whose name was Elena, it was a welcome escape from the hardscrabble life her family was forced to live. Her mother was of Spanish heritage and her ancestors, though welcome in their adopted country of America, the country they chose to flee to at a time of oppression in their native Spain, never quite fit in. They had never been gentry in their homeland, and they didn’t quite know how to grab onto the dream their new land claimed to offer.
Nevertheless, although they had jobs that seemed never to work out, and scratching from the land seemed always to be futile, they managed to feed the many mouths that came along. They were not cultured like the many European immigrants that populated their new land, but they managed to survive and even have fun after the long hard days.
Unlike those who also staked a claim in many of the new territories going west, they were loud and boisterous, they liked to dance the Flamenco to the homemade guitars they often fashioned after long days in the fields, and the elders always found a way to make moonshine after dark.
Although Elena loved her many brothers and sisters and loved helping her Mama sew clothes from the flour sacks they saved and dyed with the beautiful flowers of the woodland she was determined to do better. She would marry a rich man and save her whole family from the poverty they had endured for centuries.
Elena was beautiful but she was also smart. When she was allowed to take the one old horse the family had possessed for years to pull the plow and a small wagon to purchase the few items they were able to get in town by bargaining she managed to wheedle a length of ribbon or a small hand-carved soldier for one of her brothers from Hiram Aston who owned the only general store in town by entertaining him with stories she made up by the hour.
She also found her way to the old schoolhouse behind the church where the families who were better off sent their children since they didn’t need them to plow fields or dip candles or pump water or help with the many chores it took to keep a small log cabin as spruced up as it could be or walk behind an old simple plow when seeding time came or chop wood like her brothers did.
At the schoolhouse she hung back until the children had all left for the day or were out of doors for recess. It was then that she would sneak in to talk to the schoolmaster. He was a young man and could easily see Elena’s plight and eventually took pity on her when he could see she had a big thirst for knowledge and nowhere to slake it. He taught her to read and began slipping her some old tattered books he had acquired and taught her her sums when she was ready. And so through the years Elena became as educated as the other children who arrived at the schoolhouse in pretty dresses and handsome britches.
When Elena was eighteen true to her word she attracted the attention of a middle-aged bachelor who had never married and spent his life up until then accumulating wealth and having nowhere to spend it or the inclination to do so.
He was smitten with her and dazzled by her intelligence and her beauty. They were married immediately and he built her a very large house in the mountains far from town with all the trimmings. There were very large shutters in the Spanish style her ancestors had handed down memories of, and gilt-framed mirrors all over for Elena to admire herself in.
Elena was not vain, but she did like to primp. And, she liked to dance the Flamenco in the evening hours after the day’s work was done. Not that she worked that hard, but she did have to see to it that the floors were scrubbed and the linens ironed and put away.
Her husband, whose name was Alfred R. Paxton, liked to watch her dance, so he brought in a Victrola from a very large city many miles away so she could have her Flamenco music. He also brought in some servants so she wouldn’t have to work so hard because he liked her soft hands and her delicate countenance so she worked very hard to please him and used all manner of creams to soften her beautiful olive skin so reminiscent of her Spanish gypsy ancestors.
From the day of their marriage her family never had to scratch food from the land again but were bought new plows and two oxen to pull them and a cow to give milk and a hen to lay eggs and a new churn to turn the cream into butter. Her brothers and sisters wore store bought clothes and her Mama had a pretty dress and new bonnet for Sunday church.
And into all this Lily was born.
Lily was a beautiful baby with delicate milky white skin and a tuft of brownish hair that seemed to defy description and blend in with the earth itself. She was as delicate as the lovely white bells of her namesake that fluttered gently in the May spring breezes.
Elena thought her beautiful the minute she arrived in the world and gave her everything a baby could want. She had a cradle imported from France along with the most intricate baby blankets and hand-made caps and lace dresses. She would rock her and sing her to sleep with lullabies she had heard and dance the Flamenco with her in her arms when she wakened.
Alfred was more distant and left all her care to Elena. He was frightened of newborns and most of all had no interest. But, when she was five or six they became inseparable, overseeing his mines in the mountains together and checking on his other business interests which were many.
He would whisk her out of bed in the morning and get her dressed in her finest. “You must look like we’re successful, child. The miners must know who’s boss.”
And, after a hearty breakfast prepared by a servant but carefully overseen by Elena they would head for the mountains and Alfred’s holdings.
Alfred had been lucky in finding wealth under the ground. But, that is not to say he didn’t search in the proper manner. He had a knack for sniffing out wealth and as one of the early miners in Oklahoma he had struck it rich. He had found rubies, a rare gem he shipped east to be made into all manner of beautiful jewelry for the wealthy. He had also found coal, a perfect find because it fed the steam engines that were crossing the land on tracks that had yet to be laid to reach the Pacific Ocean.
So Alfred bought a fairly sizable interest in the railroad pushing west. He was rewarded with a sizable profit because the railroad was the hope for this new country’s industrial future.
Their buggy pushed along at a rapid pace drawn by two of the liveliest red roans in the territory. Down they went toward the prairie grasses and up the foothills of the nearby mountain that was a treasure trove of gems and coal and all manner of riches to be pulled from the earth and shipped back east to buy silks and satins and ribbons and bows and all manner of beautiful cherry wood furniture for Elena to fill the house with.
“Papa, may I get out and pick a bouquet?”
The pale of the wildflowers with the rays of the sunlight dancing among them still wet with dew never ceased to fascinate Lily and she longed to run through the early morning prairie grasses, their untamed greens and golds still rustling in the soft breezes that seemed always to accompany the vivid pinks, the scarlets, and the long brilliant swatches of orange of an Oklahoma sky at daybreak.
“We have to get on so we can get to the mines before the men. Although we’re lucky to have the miners we have, they’re a dedicated lot, and they’ve been loyal through the years, they need direction and they value it. We need to pull what we can before the claim jumpers start arriving to put us out of business or Oklahoma is opened to settlers from the east.
“Right now, the Indians leave us alone. They’re not interested in mining. They’re buffalo hunters and they like the freedom of the prairies.”
Lily never understood what Alfred was trying to tell her about business but she always listened politely because she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. And, she knew he was a man of great pride. She watched Mama listen intently to his stories of the mines and the railroads and how they would get rich and Mama could have anything she wanted.
Mama would sit at his feet at night and glance up at him with the greatest of admiration. Lily would play quietly with her dolls as they talked. She would dress them up in their finery and take them to great balls or to call on the most important people in Washington or even the kings and queens of Europe where she would surely travel someday and which she had seen in a photograph book cherished by her latest governess Mama had hired to educate Lily and turn her into the fine lady Elena had always yearned to be.
The sun broke through as the sunrise receded into the blue of the sky. As they broke through the dense forest filled with short, stubby post oak, tall, majestic pines, redcedar and flowering dogwood, and as they climbed the mountain, Lily could hear the robins chattering about as they chased their morning meal.
“Here we are,” announced Alfred, as he pulled the horses to a stop and got out to hitch them to the post where his tobacco-chewing assistant Hector would care for them during the day, making sure they had enough feed and water, and an occasional rare carrot or lump of sugar which he always gave to Lily whenever she was about.
“Good morning, Mr. Hector. Can I feed the horses today?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And, if you look in the station on the desk, there’s a wooden ball my Jamie carved for you. Now mind you don’t go losin’ it down those hills.”
“I won’t Mr. Hector. Can I see it now?”
“Of course. But mind you keep checking the sky. It’s starting to look like a storm and you need to take cover in the station. You never know whether a tornado might be kicking up.”
As Hector helped her out of the buggy she patted the horses, making sure to call them by the secret names she had given them. Although Alfred never named his horses, Lily was certain they would never get to heaven without a name.
As Lily’s feet touched the ground she ran for the station, anxious to see the ball Jamie had carved especially for her.
Jamie was her friend even though she had seen him only once. He had arrived with Hector at the mine at a time when the mine was especially lush, its veins giving up plentiful ore and the miners beside themselves with glee. Alfred always shared the wealth and it meant a big bonus.
“Who are you?” he had asked, as Lily stared up at the tall, handsome lad, stunned at his good looks, but overwhelmed at his outfit, since he was as fastidious as Hector was not.
“I’m Jamie. Who are you?”
“Oh, you’re Mr. Paxton’s girl. I better watch out how I treat you. I’ll get in a pack of trouble with my Pa if I don’t let you win at rolling’ the wagon wheel or let you catch me at tag or hide and seek. Or let you win at a game of marbles.”
“You don’t have to let me win. I can beat you. I know I can. I play lots of games with my dolls and I always win.”
“Oh, yeah? Girls can’t play marbles. My sisters sniffle if I beat them. But, I beat them every time.”
Jamie pulled some marbles from the brown woolen britches he wore tucked into the leather boots he had fashioned himself. He threw them on the floor. There two larger marbles stood out from the rest of the pack.
“Those two big ones are the shooters. You can choose. What color do you want?”
Lily took a long time to look over the crop of beautifully polished marbles. “I’ll take the green one. It’s the color of the prairie grasses.”
“Okay. My red will beat your green every time.” “No, it won’t. You’ll see.”
Lily wasn’t certain whether Jamie ended up letting her win or whether she won because of the skill she had found when Alfred got her toys meant for boys. He insisted on teaching her boys’ games against the wishes of Elena who wanted to make a fine lady out of her when what he wanted was for her to take over his businesses when she became of age.
She only knew she was struck by his good looks and that he was so much older than she was but he still took the time to take her seriously.
Jamie was surrounded by sisters and they teased him mercilessly. They also spoiled him when circumstances and the work on their very small farm allowed.
They would bake his favorite cornbread or cherry pie. They would find tidbits of extra succulent roasted rabbit that he had brought down in the endless quest for small game to fill their table to tempt him with.
Lily did neither. She considered everyone who crossed her path an equal because as an only child her companions were adults and they treated her like an equal because they had no idea how else to treat her.
In the afternoon, Jamie and Lily wandered the dense forests that surrounded the mine. Jamie was intent upon showing Lily how to make a bow and arrow from a sapling tree and how to chase a rabbit into his hole as he skittered back and forth to fool an enemy.
Jamie was anxious to show Lily his knowledge of forest trees. He knew the oaks and the sycamores and the pines and the redcedars. He knew what would make a sturdy chair or a big table to eat upon or a chest of drawers to hold the beautiful dresses and britches his Ma sewed even by candlelight when the day’s chores were done.
Lily looked up to the sky but saw none. “Where did the sky go?”
Jamie laughed. “The tall pines and the elm trees and the sycamores grow so close they block the light. But, the sky will never go away. It’s there forever.”
Lily wasn’t certain of the concept of forever. But, she wanted to please Jamie so she listened intently to everything he said.
She looked down at the forest floor. “Where are the flowers? The prairie grasses are full of beautiful daisies all white and yellow. And flowers I can pick to make a bouquet out of to take back to Mama with colors the same as my favorite paints that Mama sends for.”
“Flowers need sunshine to bloom like people do. The trees of our forests are so close together they practically hug. But, they keep out the sunshine so no flowers throw down their seed ‘cause they won’t bloom.”
Lily began to think that Jamie was the only person she knew who knew everything. And, he treated her more gently than anyone she ever knew.
“Now, let’s go see if the robins and chickadees have laid their eggs.”
They searched until they found a chickadee nest in a hole in an elm tree, its base the moss of the forest floor, then bits of bark and rabbit fur nestling the newly laid eggs, their dull white covered by reddish brown speckles. “The babies will be born soon,” said Jamie. “They’ll be fed and cared for until they’re ready to fly. But, then they’ll be on their own and we’ll have more chickadees to fill the forest with song.”
The robin’s eggs had been laid as well, their soft blue a beautiful contrast to the twigs of the carefully woven nest.
“We’d better get back. Pa will wonder if we’ve gone off to another territory.”
As Lily’s thoughts returned to the present, she went into the station to see what Jamie had made especially for her. It was a ball carved from the wood of the majestic pines of the forest polished to a gloss with the fine powder of the weathered Oklahoma limestone. Her name was painted in large, bold letters across the middle.
The miners began to straggle in, some of them walking miles from Indian territory or some from very small cabins where they kept a stock of goods sent for from France or Spain for the lucrative Indian trade.
Lily kept to herself out of the way of the miners as Alfred gave them the day’s instructions. Hector checked all of the safety gear and pulled the levers that sent them down to darkness and another day of hope that maybe they’d finally strike a mother lode that would send them all into an easier life for themselves and for their families.
Lily checked the darkening sky through the large, station windows for clouds resembling angels or men on horseback or queens with long flowing robes she had only imagined from the many stories Mama had read or told her. She was certain she would someday meet them all.